All of us are regularly asked to engage with the past in some way. The world is saturated by history.
But, then, a simple question: What is history? Ask fifty people and you’ll get, typically, fifty shades of the same answer: History is something about a past. Whether as myth or memory, narrative or science, or found in gradients in between each, the most common denominator is a starting place in an ambiguous past, a “before now,” which is given meaning only insofar as it is connected to other things either similarly before now or, sometimes even more strangely, to things happening “now” or “later.” Obviously, this is a plain observation, an easy, even trite, simplification of the facts at hand; for those not entertained by simple linguistic reductions, however, an interesting bit comes into play when we ask a follow-up question: What is the use of history?
Nietzsche wrote, “The question of the degree to which life requires the service of history at all, however, is one of the supreme questions and concerns in regard to the health of a man, a people or a culture.” The question of history’s usefulness is an old one. One answer, coming from Foucault, paraphrasing Nietzsche, is that genealogy (history’s less stuffy, more freewheeling younger sibling) ought to be put to the task of untangling the binds that restrict history to domination, and exclusion. In this sense, history—as the “before now”—isn’t so much “for itself” but exists only insofar as it is able to deconstruct a repressive narrative and illuminate the parts of the story that were otherwise missing. Ultimately, to White, paraphrasing Foucault (still paraphrasing Nietzsche), this project hopes to “return consciousness to an apprehension of the world as it might have existed before human consciousness appeared in the world, a world…which is neither orderly nor disorderly.”
Of course, astute readers will at once notice what I am doing, I am paraphrasing the paraphrases of paraphrasers. As some will notice, I am grossly reducing Foucault’s reading of Nietzsche, while also simplifying White’s reading of Foucault and White’s reading of Foucault reading Nietzsche. Others may comment that I have forgotten to mention historians such as Thomas Carlyle, Leopold von Ranke, and Fernand Braudel; Hegel is missing, as is Marx, as is Gadamer, as is Jameson. I have not mentioned any women, nor anyone not of Anglo-European descent or anyone lacking in an increasingly more niche educational background. Likewise, I have not offered any mention of the means or methods that would even allow the keeping and analysis of history, such as writing, books, education, or ideological impetus. The list could go on, but the point is this: In order to be apprehended, history must be paraphrased (and must always leave not a few people out of the “in club”). Most astute readers might have picked up that not everyone would pick up all the names dropped above.
Perhaps history itself is like television snow and our understanding of it is the same as picking a few dots and lines out to see a smiley face. The real past, the before now prior to comprehension, isn’t cleanly demarcated; those lines—Agricultural Revolution, Middle Ages, Modernity, etc.—were, after all, drawn by us. This isn’t to say that things didn’t happen, that the past is unknowable, but it is to say that parts are always withheld or arbitrarily left out in order for it to be comprehensible. Really, we must draw those lines while always being aware of them or risk being overwhelmed by history’s impenetrable scale.
As a young historian, I am beginning to understand that history cannot be correctly paraphrased or condensed. Our understanding is “never absolute and never complete”—an always already broken tool that we don’t realize is broken—but as Heidegger tells us, we are still thrown into a world that is conditioned by happenings that came before us and that, in turn, calls us to respond to it. No sort of linguistic or existential turn can completely amend the facticity that something was before now, is now, and will, potentially, be now and otherwise. The scale of this real past and the problems that have bubbled forth from it don’t allow it or us to fit comfortably within a singular ideological box or definition. History is the clay we use to shape the tools and toys of life for whatever purposes we see fit; it is “as much poetical as it is grammatical.”
Contemporarily, in forms such as BLM and anti-racism activism, climate activism, even the proliferation of cancel culture, the resurgence of right-wing populism, one can see the various iterations of historical understanding as a (broken) tool. Each of these movements is activated and energized by history; whether it is by the right or the left or otherwise, as a tool, a toy, or even a weapon, history is necessarily cherry-picked in order to be functional for a specific means. This is not a recent phenomenon, but the vast information dump of the internet and adjacent technologies enables the flat, fecund plain of history to be picked up into more and more idiosyncratic forms. Something happens, and it calls for its response—a new nonprofit, a new -ism—or the reverse: nothing is happening and before it was, now a revival, a soft reboot, a repetition with a difference, or something else entirely, ad infinitum.
History as television snow asks us to be creative enough to make faces out of random dots and lines. But the problems of the past—the risk of eye strain—also require us to look away from time to time, to look away and draw inspiration from elsewhere or otherwise be willing to see a different sort of pattern in the mess. History—and our ability to use it—is limited when we put it into boxes, when we stare at it so it can’t change and make it give us morals and a means to some ultimate, comfortably prophesied end. We must always be interrogating strict narratives of the past and the presents and futures that come with them, not to reject them but to recognize the vast plurality of cohabitating pasts and potential, unpredictable futures. It may be true that the present has an obsession with the past, but this obsession itself—in its vast plurality and arbitrariness—could be the mechanism for novel action in the present and future. Maybe this would allow us to see and understand ourselves and our world with greater range. We would be seeing our many mistakes, our half successes, and our surprise triumphs. With this range, perhaps, we’d be emboldened to not only understand more but to act and act more boldly, more definitively, as if in a dream.
- Kyrie Mason is an aspiring writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He is currently a graduate student in North Carolina Central University’s history program, where much of his work, both creatively and professionally, is focused on the relationship between marginalized identities and modernity, particularly where this relationship begins to intersect temporally.
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